Pigeon slippers

By Robert Ralley and Lauren Kassell

The Casebooks Project, a team of scholars at the University of Cambridge, has spent a decade studying 80,000 consultations recorded by the seventeenth-century astrologer-physicians Simon Forman and Richard Napier. To mark the completion of our work, we selected 500 cases for full transcription. When the launch was announced on 16 May 2019, it received considerable media attention. Headlines included ‘Prescribing deer dung and pigeon slippers’ (BBC news), ‘Purges, angels and “pigeon slippers”’ (The Guardian), and ‘“Kisse myne arse”: Doctor’s notes reveal bizarre medical notes from 400 years ago’ (c/net).


Fig. 1: Richard Napier’s CASE51060, MS Ashmole 414, f. 76r. Bodleian Library, University of Oxford.

When Mrs Elizabeth Chester, suffering from hot, red eyes, consulted Richard Napier, the Anglican rector and astrologer, in June 1620, his remedy included ‘a pigon slitt & applyed to the sole of each foote’ (see Fig. 1). Applying freshly killed pigeons to the feet or other parts was not one of Napier’s standard treatments, but we have spotted references to it in around 30 cases. More instances await discovery amidst the 70,000 consultations that Napier recorded between 1597 and 1634. Roughly half record treatments. Often unhelpfully shortened to ‘pig’ – whence remarks such as the cryptic-looking ‘pig to the feete’ – this remedy appears often enough for Joanne Edge, one of the Casebooks Project’s editors, to dub it ‘pigeon slippers’.

We don’t know whether Napier read about the use of pigeons in a medical book or learned it from another healer. It’s not amongst the treatments, as far as we can tell, that he learned from his mentor, Simon Forman. Napier first recommended slit pigeons, twice, in March 1607 (see here and Fig. 2; and here), and occasionally thereafter for the rest of his career.

Fig. 2: Richard Napier’s CASE30882, MS Ashmole 193, f. 113r. Bodleian Library, University of Oxford.

Pigeons were common in early modern Europe. People kept and ate them, their broths were fortifying, and distillations made from them were good for the skin. English medical texts, typically translated from earlier Latin and vernacular editions, regularly referred to blood drawn from under their wings to help with eye troubles. From antiquity, pigeon dung featured in plasters and drinks for numerous remedies. Galen, the great second-century physician, had recommended the application of freshly-killed pigeons, puppies and ram lungs to the head. Medieval medical treatises and recipe collections perpetuated the practice, especially for cases of frenzy. Physicians trained at Montpellier applied pigeons to the chest to comfort the heart. Sixteenth-century books of secrets recommended pigeons—either freshly killed or live with their tail feathers plucked—to draw foul matter out of plague buboes. Napier duly noted, ‘apply halfe a pigeon new slitte to the outsyde of the sore’.

Medieval texts often recommended rubbing the feet, and other extremities, with salt, vinegar and wine, but so far the earliest reference we’ve found to ‘A quick Pidgeon cut in two, and bound to the soles of the feet’ is by Felix Platter, the distinguished Basel physician, in his extensive 1614 medical book.[1] Used with other remedies, pigeons to the feet helped ensure a speedy recovery. By 1638, the Hull physician James Primerose noted that ancient and modern writers advised applying pigeons to the head in diseases of the brain, but, to his knowledge, this was rarely done in practice. Rather, ‘the common people’ and ‘very many physicians’ instead applied pigeons to the feet.[2] Napier’s casebooks attest to this. He usually recommended slit pigeons to the feet for problems of the head or throat, whether a swollen face (see Fig. 3), hot, running or sore eyes (see Fig. 4), or even a bad cough. A handful of cases concern the mind, from what Napier called ‘lightheadedness’ (not dizziness), via melancholy, up to frenzy. Occasionally he chose the neck instead or both neck and feet. He always combined pigeons with other therapeutics (various internal medicines, ointments, clysters, blisters and bloodletting, for instance). When in 1632 the vicar of Westmill, Hertfordshire reported to him that a parishioner had been treated for frenzy with pigeons to her feet and a slit cock all over her head, Napier replied suggesting a sigil and a list of medicines.

Fig. 3: Richard Napier’s CASE23369, MS Ashmole 238, f. 212v. Bodleian Library, University of Oxford.

In seventeenth-century England, pigeon slippers seem to have become standard in the medical repertoire. John Hall, the physician from Stratford-upon-Avon who married Shakespeare’s daughter, recorded that when he suffered from a ‘light Delirium’ caused by a dangerous fever in 1632, the cure included ‘a Pigeon cut open alive, and applied to my feet to draw down the Vapours’.[3] Theodore de Mayerne and fellow royal physicians applied a pigeon to the head of the ailing Prince Henry in 1612, and a slit cock to his feet, without success.[4] Samuel Pepys, in his famous diary, recorded the treatment’s use when patients’ lives were in danger: in October 1663 he noted that Catherine of Braganza ‘was so ill as to be shaved and pidgeons put to her feet, and to have the extreme unction given her by the priests’; in January 1667/8 he visited the house of a man whose ‘breath rattled in his throate, and they did lay pigeons to his feete while I was in the house, and all despair of him, and with good reason’. There is no sign that Napier regarded the treatment as a last resort.

Fig. 4: Richard Napier’s CASE23227, MS Ashmole 238, f. 190r. Bodleian Library, University of Oxford.

For learned physicians and laypeople alike, pigeon slippers worked through attraction. Just as Hall explained that they had ‘draw[n] down the Vapours’, so in 1604, Napier noted that William Godfrey, who suffered from bloodshot eyes and a hot rheum, had ‘applyed a pigeon slitte to his necke which drew the rheume thither & eased’. In May 1600 Napier recorded that Mother Gale had decided that a boy’s burning shoulders, aching back and swollen knees were because he was forspoken (bewitched), and treated him by putting ‘a cock pigion slit to his … face’ and throwing his nail parings in a fire. Perhaps her rationale was to remove some sort of poison, as when slit pigeons were applied to plague sores. Primerose considered and dismissed the possibility that the pigeons’ gentle heat on a patient’s feet could affect the head and its humours at all. ‘Nevertheless’, he wrote, ‘I doe not absolutely speake against the applying them to the soles of the feet, because it may doe a little good, and cannot doe hurt.’[5]


[1] Platerus golden practice of physick fully and plainly discovering, trans. Nicholas Culpeper, 1664, Bk 2, Ch. 2, Of fevers.

[2] James Primerose, Popular Errours, trans. Robert Wittie (London, 1651), p. 397.

[3] John Hall, Select observations on English bodies of eminent persons in desperate diseases (transl. James Cook, 1679), OBSERV. LX.

[4] Hugh Trevor-Roper, Europe’s Physician (2006), p. 172.

[5] James Primerose, Popular Errours, transl. Robert Wittie (London, 1651), p. 400.

Tales from the Archives: What Was Perfume in the Eighteenth Century?

In the UK, we are getting towards the end of the wonderful bluebell season. In some cooler parts of the country, forest floors are still covered with the delicately-scented flower. I love the earthy smell of bluebells as it blends with the other scents of the woods.

In celebration of the delicious smells that spring flowers bring, this month takes ‘perfume’ as its theme.

We start with a post from our archives. In this post originally published in 2014, Kirsten James reflects on the definition of perfume in the eighteenth century, highlighting the changes in the use of perfumes over that century.


By Kirsten James

Perfume as we know it is a sweet smelling liquid made from natural and synthetic aromatic ingredients. Yet, far from being a mere scent, perfume is also a fashion accessory, tool of self-definition, and convenient gift. Perfumes are now branded so successfully that names and bottles are often more recognizable than actual smells.

Simon Barbe, Le Parfumeur Royal, Paris, 1699. Image Credit: BIU Santé, http://www2.biusante.parisdescartes.fr/livanc/index.las?tout=barbe+simon&op=OU&tout2=&statut=charge

It is easy to imagine that perfume in the past was much the same. For instance, conventional histories of perfume remind us that in the eighteenth century, perfume was luxurious and worn by female courtiers, amongst others, to demonstrate their social status. This was undoubtedly the case. But a variety of evidence reveals that, during this period, perfume had multiple uses and meanings that are readily overlooked if we simply seek out the familiar present in the past.

One kind of evidence comes from perfumers’ business records. Stock inventories, account books, and sale receipts allow us to form a more nuanced impression of what perfumers sold, how much their products cost, and how they changed over time. In the late 1700s, the best-selling products available from perfumers in major European cities such as London and Paris included (as one might imagine) scented waters. However, they also included items that one would not associate with perfumers today: soap for the body, powders and pomades for the hair, alongside an assortment of tongue scrapers, tooth brushes, and toothpaste that reflected the new obsession with oral hygiene – the latter trend explored by Colin Jones in The Smile Revolution.

Advertisements, including trade-cards and broadsides, represent another set of evidence betraying the range of products sold by perfumers. In many cases, these advertisements contained a simple picture, the name and address of the shop, and a list of available products. One such broadside was displayed by Arthur Rothwell; it announced that he sold from “The Civet-Cat and Rose” on London’s New Bond Street not only perfumes and “quintessences” but also snuffs, wash-balls, hair combs and powders, skin products, and several medicines including “Daffy’s Elixir.”

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Pierre Lalouette, A New Method of Curing Venereal Disease by Fumigation. London, 1777. Image Credit: Internet Archive, https://archive.org/details/newmethodofcurin00lalo

A third kind of evidence consists of medical treatises. These show that some circles considered perfumes effective medicines. As in previous centuries, perfume reputedly prevented and cured plague. But, in the 1700s, when outbreaks of bubonic plague ceased in Western Europe, perfume was set to work strengthening body and mind, preventing spasms, and curing lethargy. In the 1770s, for example, physician Pierre Lalouette invented a fumigation machine that used perfumes to treat venereal disease. Several ingredients burnt in his machine could be purchased from the perfumer’s boutique; these included frankincense, nutmeg, myrrh, and juniper. Others, such as mercury and sulphur, remained exclusive to druggists and apothecaries because they were considered dangerous.

A final kind of evidence is arguably even more useful for showing the different uses and meanings of perfume. Other contributions to this blog demonstrate how recipes can reveal much about the past. Printed and manuscript recipes for perfumes are no exception. Recipes in pharmacopoeias confirm that physicians believed in the medicinal properties of perfumes. Pharmacopoia Bateana (1706) claimed that the “Royal Essence” (consisting of musk, civet, balsam of Peru, clove oil, rhodium oil, tartar salt and cinnamon) could form an “odoriferous water” that prevented “fainting fits.”  Various manuscript collections (such as those in the Wellcome Collection) include recipes for masking stenches, purifying the air, preventing aging, and enhancing beauty.

Such books indicate how the use of perfume changed. In the early 1700s, the emphasis was still on scenting waters, gloves, linens, and homes. By the second half of the 1700s, however, the emphasis switched from perfuming things and places to perfuming the body. For instance, The Toilet of Flora (1784) recommended that “Hungary-Water” (made from rosemary, pennyroyal and marjoram flowers mixed with conic brandy) be used “to bathe the face and limbs, or any part affected with pains” in order to cleanse and strengthen the body.

As these different sets of evidence suggest, perfume in the eighteenth century was multifarious, and the history of the word “perfume” is consistent with these multiple uses and meanings. The word derives from the Latin per fumum (“through smoke”), and throughout the seventeenth century perfume usually referred to substances that released odour when heated. However, by the mid-eighteenth century the “agreeable odour” of perfume was as likely to feature in dictionary definitions as its medical uses. By the early nineteenth century, some dictionaries referred to the purported medicinal uses of perfumes as an anachronism, while adding that perfumes were increasingly sought after for their refined and luxurious scents. It would not be until the nineteenth century, then, that the meaning and uses of perfume – though not its marketing – took on a character that looks decidedly familiar to us.

Tales from the Archives: Drinkable Gold for the King of Siam

In my first months of co-editing duties here at The Recipes Project, one of my many delights has been the opportunity to dig back in our archives to rediscover posts I’ve loved over the years, to see them with fresh eyes. As a historian of Japan, I’ve looked forward to exploring and expanding our content on Asia, especially in global exchange. In that spirit, I bring you a classic post on European medicine in Siam (Thailand) from back in 2015, Tara Alberts’ “Making Drinkable Gold for the King of Siam.”

You may also notice several posts on a mini-theme of…shall we say uncomfortable recipes throughout the month of April, including historical treatments for lice and hemorrhoids already available to read (with more to come). Though I’d hardly put drinking gold at the same level of discomfort, and a fleck of gold leaf in a cocktail can still be a decadent indulgence today, I’d hate to see what a bellyful of Parisian golden medicine would do to a poor king’s stomach. Salud!


Making Drinkable Gold for the King of Siam

By Tara Alberts

In a previous post I discussed how early modern Catholic missionaries sought to showcase the most up-to-date European medicines to impress their target audiences. This was also a key strategy used to gain access to royal courts throughout Asia.

At the court of King Narai (r. 1656-88) of Siam, for example, Europeans joined experts from China, India, and elsewhere in Southeast Asia to provide medical advice to the royal family.  Narai’s court was a cosmopolitan place: the king was keen to hear about foreign technologies and theories, and to encourage foreign trade. The French missionaries of the Société des Missions Étrangères de Paris (MEP) were determined to take advantage of the opportunities that this offered.

Narai receiving the French Embassy, 1685. Wikimedia Commons
King Narai receiving the French Embassy, 1685. Wikimedia Commons

This could be easier said than done. It’s likely that the job of concocting remedies fell to René Charbonneau (1643-1727), a lay auxiliary to the MEP who had trained as a surgeon. In a 1677 he wrote a frustrated letter to a friend in Paris pleading for an easy-to-follow recipe written in French for aurum potabile. ‘The king has asked for drinkable gold’, he wrote ‘but we have not been able to manage it. […] Please write down in a letter the method of making it and purifying it for use, and the manner in which it is taken, written out in full in clear French and not in Latin and not in terms of chemistry as I am not versed in that art.’ (Archives des Missions Étrangères [AMEP] vol. 861, p. 41).

Gold-based medicines had ancient precedents in various European and Asian medical traditions. Like many putative panacea they enjoyed a renaissance in Europe in the late sixteenth and early seventeenth seventeenth centuries. [i] There were innumerable recipes available to create aurum potabile, often using gold flakes or powder alongside other expensive ingredients including precious stones, unicorn horn and spices.

Yet since the sixteenth century, many writers had been extremely skeptical about whether such cures could possibly be of use. The chemist Nicolas Lefebvre, in his Traité de la Chymie (1660), denied that they could have any effect on the human body. Mixing gold leaf into medical concoctions and powders, he asserted, was an ‘abuse in Pharmacy that the Arabs have introduced’ (p. 801). Such medicaments could not be effective as the human body contained nothing capable of breaking the gold down. Lefebvre doubted whether any efficacious cure could really be created from gold, but like other compilers of alchemical compendia, he provided a range of common recipes to purify and use gold in a more sophisticated manner.

An alchemist making gold. Oil painting by Hendrik Heerschop. The Wellcome Library, London
An alchemist making gold. Oil painting by Hendrik Heerschop, 1665

It seems that the MEP were attempting to use these sorts of alchemical methods to create a ‘true’ drinkable gold (rather than just creating a medicinal draught with added gold flakes) and that this was proving difficult. MEP missionary Charles Sevin (?-1707) blamed the equipment available in Siam. He explained in a letter to his Parisian superiors that they had brought the necessary ingredients to make the king some huile d’or potable, but the glass retorts they acquired there all shattered before they reached the necessary temperatures. (AMEP, vol. 851, p. 190).

Others confessed that their ignorance of alchemical processes was hindering progress. Charbonneau mentions that he had with him Christophe Glaser’s Traité de Chymie (1667). In this, Glaser explains several different ways of purifying gold, and offers several different methods for rendering this purified gold usable as a medical preparation through fulmination, calcination with mercury, or dissolution in the aptly named ‘royal water’ (eau régale or aqua regia – nitrohydrochloric acid). One recipe for a draught containing ‘diaphoretic gold powder’ for example, recommends that after purification the gold should be dissolved in three drams of royal water to which is added a dram of refined saltpeter. This liquid should then be used to soak small pieces of linen, which, once dried, should be burnt. The resultant ashes should be collected carefully using a hare’s foot or a feather and then used to make a pill or a draught using a small amount of wine or bouillon.

Glaser’s stated aim in writing his Traité was to set out the principles and practices of chemistry in plain language, but Charbonneau complained that he found Glaser’s text confusing. He and his confrères had had some success when they attempted to follow Glaser’s instructions with regards to purifying tin, but they were not confident enough to give a demonstration, nor, presumably, to waste their supplies of ingredients needed to make impressive remedies for the king.

There was a clear incentive to make a particularly impressive version of drinkable gold which would showcase the effectiveness of exotic European recipes, and by extension other branches of European knowledge. Yet even the most up-to-date texts explaining how to create these remedies were useless without the necessary skills and equipment to put the theory into practice. No wonder then that MEP superiors in Siam began soon to lobby for missionaries and lay helpers who were skilled in alchemy to be sent from Paris.

[i] Informative overviews of the history of pharmaceutical gold are provided here by R. Console, and here by M. Hendriksen.

Nit Picking the Greek and Roman Way

By Laurence Totelin

One of the ‘joys’ of parenthood is dealing with lice and nits. In the UK, the NHS helpfully states that ‘there’s nothing you can do to prevent head lice.’ You can only prevent them from spreading like wild fire. This school year, the problem has deepened in England and Wales, as general practitioners have been prevented from prescribing free treatments in an attempt to make savings. Treatments on sale in pharmacies and supermarkets are exorbitantly priced and don’t work particularly well. Cheaper treatments, basically covering the hair with hair conditioner and combing, are extremely time consuming but perhaps more effective in the long run.

Nineteenth-century lice comb, India. The Science Museum, London. Source: Wellcome Images

Fighting off lice infestations in our household this year has made me wonder whether the Greeks and the Romans also dealt with the issue, and if so, how. I discovered that the ancients distinguished between the adult insect, the louse (phtheir in Greek), and its egg (konis in Greek), thereby showing an understanding that one cannot get rid of the pest without removing all eggs. They also recognised that lice can live on the head, the body, and even the eyebrows. They appreciated that the easiest way to treat an infestation was to shave the hair, although perhaps not as assiduously as Egyptian priests, who according to the Greek historian Herodotus (Histories 2.37), shaved their entire body every other day to avoid lice. That method, however, was not available to those who had to wear their hair long for social or cultural reasons. Thus, Herodotus again noted of the Adyrmachidae, a tribe of Libyans, that:

Their women wear twisted bronze ornaments on both legs; their hair is long; each catches her own lice, then bites and throws them away. They are the only Libyans that do this (Herodotus 4.168, translation A.D. Godley).

This observation is meant to stress the oddness and otherness of the Adyrmachidae, whose women fight lice in a disgusting manner, without even relying on the social ritual of nit picking.

Delousing. Illustration to the Hortus Sanitatis, fifteenth century. Source: Wellcome Images

What about treatments? Ancient Greek and Roman medical authors offer some possible solutions. The first-century pharmacologist Dioscorides recorded several methods in his De Materia Medica, many of which are still in use today. Some consisted in spreading the hair with a sticky or oily substance, such as cedar oil (1.77.2) or boiled honey (2.82.2), which would presumably have asphyxiated the lice and facilitated a combing process. Others involved smearing the hair with a plant sap (sap of ivy, 2.179.3) or decoction (decoction of tamarisk leaves, 1.87.2), which might have acted as an insect repellent or poison. Dioscorides also recommended the use of alum (5.106.6) and sea water (5.11.1). Perhaps more surprising is his suggestion to give garlic, drunk with a decoction of oregano (2.152.2).

Other medical authors gave slightly more complex recipes for the treatment of lice infestation. Thus, the sixth century author Alexander of Tralles (1.459) recommended a mixture of sodium carbonate, alum, and wild grapes, each in the amount of an ounce, mixed with myrtle oil and smeared onto the head. The seventh century medical author Paul of Aegina for his part claimed that ‘I am always successful when I anoint the head with wild grapes crushed together with vinegar and oil’ (3.3.8).

In short, most of those remedies are highly sensible, if perhaps not entirely effective. But then again, what is ever effective in fighting lice? There were, however, some tall tales circulating in antiquity regarding nits and lice. Dioscorides tells us that authorities whose names were not worth recording ‘say that those who are given [viper flesh] grow lice, which is false. And some add that those who eat vipers become long-lived’ (2.16.1). The trade off for a long life, then it seems, is to eat viper flesh and become a growing field for lice. I’m not sure I would make that trade off!